It’s hard to argue there was a more important — and surprising — musician in 2021 than Olivia Rodrigo. She went from relative unknown to complete superstar, and she did it using, in part, the revived sound of pop-punk.
What a world. No, seriously, what a world. Because I’d argue the specific conditions of 2021 helped resuscitate pop-punk, a genre of music near and dear to my heart (and the hearts of lots of other people born in the early ’90s). Following the new wave punk scene of the ’70s and ’80s, pop-punk went mainstream with commercially successful bands like Sum 41, Blink-182, Paramore, and Green Day. It is exactly what its name implies: a more pop version of punk.
This year was such a strange one, a witch’s brew of half normalcy — some concerts, some school, some seeing family — but persistent pandemic horrors. And each time things seemed to move toward recovery, the world delivered a blow (hello, Delta and Omicron). I cannot imagine experiencing this year as a kid or Gen Z’er in the prime of their young lives.
There’s something to the fact that pop-punk’s resurgence followed the widespread adoption of snark-laden online doomerism, the idea that, well, everything sucks…
It’s such an adult world to be thrust into and as young people took that on, they helped set pop culture’s path, as young people always do.
There’s something to the fact that pop-punk’s resurgence followed the widespread adoption of snark-laden online doomerism, the idea that, well, everything sucks and the impending global emergencies — climate, pandemic, political, etc. — are nearly impossible to reverse. The world’s burning, so we might as well laugh.
Consider these lyrics from Rodrigo, again, perhaps the breakout pop grrrl of the year. This is the opening track, titled “brutal,” of the 18-year-old idol’s debut album. Really take it in.
“I’m so tired that I might
Quit my job, start a new life
And they’d all be so disappointed
‘Cause who am I, if not exploited?
… And I’m so sick of 17
Where’s my fucking teenage dream?
If someone tells me one more time
‘Enjoy your youth,’ I’m gonna cry
And I don’t stick up for myself
I’m anxious and nothing can help
And I wish I’d done this before
And I wish people liked me more
… All I did was try my best
This the kind of thanks I get?
Unrelentlessly upset (ah, ah, ah)
They say these are the golden years
But I wish I could disappear
Ego crush is so severe
God, it’s brutal out here”
This song unquestionably kicks ass, and without question it also borrows its sound from the pop-punk of the late ’90s and early 2000s. (For what it’s worth, Rodrigo takes her style cues from that era too.) But it’s also what’s resonating with her target audience, aka teens and twentysomethings, and thus the culture writ large. Rodrigo’s “good 4 u” even sounded, well, a lot like Paramore’s “Misery Business,” a classic of the pop-punk genre — so much so that those similarities landed Paramore’s Hayley Williams and Joshua Farro retroactive songwriting credits on the track.
And it wasn’t just Rodrigo leading the pop-punk charge. Machine Gun Kelly reinvented himself, ditching rap for angsty, quaint rock songs that echoed Blink-182. Meet Me @ The Alter turned the 2000s, white guy pop-punk paradigm on its head with kick-ass songs like “Hit Like A Girl.” “Meet Me At Our Spot” — from the Anxiety, Willow, and Tyler Cole — was a legit trend on TikTok, soundtracking more than 400,000 videos on the app.
Pop-punk was even a massive part of K-pop this year, with groups like Tomorrow X Together and ENHYPEN embracing the sound on a global scale. Though referring to K-pop as only one type of music is reductive, it’s still surreal to see a style and sound so familiar to my youth in Wilmington, Delaware become hugely influential to young people in South Korea and throughout other parts of the world today.
Now, to be clear, I’m not here to say that the specific hellscape of the last two years inspired this revival. I think we’d been heading that direction. After all, cultural trends are cyclical, resurfacing every 20 years or so. The punk movement of the late ’70s gave way to the birth of pop-punk in the early 2000s, which has ultimately inspired this current wave of stars — Rodrigo, Halsey, Machine Gun Kelly, YUNGBLUD, and more — to get loud. That being said, 2021 was the perfect year for a pop-punk renaissance.
The year was seemingly defined by angsty lyrics, bleached hair, and baggy jeans. All of sudden, I am back in middle school begging my parents to let me dye my hair. The 2000s became a source of nostalgia for Gen Z and ’90s kids alike. Mashable’s Elena Cavender wrote about the TikTok accounts solely devoted to mashing up nostalgic videos of the Y2K era, typically catching scenes of teens bopping around their high school halls.
SEE ALSO: TikTok’s nostalgia-fueled obsession with the early 2000s
“High school in the early 2000s is not an experience most TikTok users have, but alas they yearn for it and idealize it,” Cavender, who is Gen Z, wrote. TikTokkers comment about how great it all looks.
I can assure you it did not feel that great, but you know what? At least our problems, as kids growing up in the 2000s, were kid stuff. Sure, there were awful wars, and a financial collapse, but for many of us, those things were secondary to our normal kid shit. I can see how looking back at those videos are nostalgic, maybe even idyllic, for Zoomers living in today’s fast-paced modern world, where everything is so much all the time. For us, there was no endless doomscrolling and the doom was more avoidable — this pandemic is impossible to ignore.
So amid that nostalgia, it of course makes absolute sense that an angsty music genre from that era would resurface. Bringing back the 2000s was already a trend. For generations, young people have made ugly crap from decades ago look cool again. It’s only natural pop-punk’s chugga-chugga chords, angry lyrics, and general disdain for… positivity… would become popular alongside that style.
Now, what pop-punk is, is kind of in the eye of the beholder. But a key element is a dejected attitude that relies on self-deprecation. Think of the Blink-182 classic “What’s My Age Again,” where the narrator trips over himself constantly because he’s an immature idiot. The central tension of so many pop-punk songs is some mix of woe-is-me paired with exhaustion at yourself for feeling woe-is-me. Today’s “Meet Me At Our Spot,” which is far more pop than punk, but still relies on the narrators’ admitting how they’re kind of fucking up before saying screw it, let’s drive around town. It’s a combination of we’re fucked, so let’s get loud. There’s sincerity mixed with withholding. Yes, things are bad but LOL, isn’t that just how things go? What is more 2021 than that? We’ve all had to redefine what it means for things to go well.
Everything good, it seems, is couched with “but you know things are still bad.” Hell, Machine Gun Kelly’s breakout album was called Tickets To My Downfall, as in “everyone wants to see me fail.” Rodrigo’s massive album was titled Sour, as in, “I’m, bitter, isn’t that embarrassing?” There’s something about 2021 — a year where everything was just more of the same — where that kind of angst is perfect.
Our world, especially our online world — come to think of it, what is our world if not entirely online? — increasingly rejects the idea of full sincerity. Even commercials these days are cloyingly meta, winking at the consumer as if to say, “Can you believe we’re selling stuff to you?” Even Flo from those Progressive ads has begun breaking the fourth wall.
There’s something about 2021 — a year where everything was just more of the same — where that kind of angst is perfect.
Pop-punk allows for anger with some distance, or at least some acknowledgment of your own faults. Sad songs are sincere. Angry songs are loud, but one-dimensional. Pop-punk songs are angsty and emotional, but often under the surface, really sad and kind of… angry at the idea of feeling bad for yourself. It’s being sad and angry and heartbroken and rolling your eyes at the idea of the being the person who’s sad and angry and heartbroken. What gives you the right? Scroll back up and re-read those lyrics from “brutal.” It’s awful to think of a teen experiencing that level of dread and yet, they’re offset by the winking, perfect line, “God, it’s brutal out here,” delivered with knowing snark.
That’s the magic of pop-punk music. It’s angry like punk, but just poppy enough to pay off with a clean hook. The closing lyrics from one of my favorite pop-punk songs, PUP’s “Free at Last,” declare: “I’m waking up again / Knowing nothing really matters at all / Just ’cause you’re sad again / It doesn’t make you special.”
That’s one of the defining feelings of 2021. You’re sad? Get in line. That’s frustrating but freeing, especially when screamed atop a catchy guitar riff.